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Existential Epistles • Responsibility Reviewed • Modern Moral Positions • Dancing Around Lyotard • Protesting About Protesting • Art & Morality Don’t Mix • Fun With Values
Dear Editor: With regard to the existentialism theme of Issue 145, Jean-Paul Sartre was famously asked how he could stand by his view that we are unconditionally free, in a world in which for example a French Resistance fighter might he forced to give up their secrets as a result of physical torture. Sartre’s view was that the torture victim was free to choose the precise moment at which they talk. This is consistent with the freedom that Sartrean existentialism is built on, while carrying no criticism of the theoretical victim of the abuse. At a time when belief in free will is under intense philosophical and scientific scrutiny, Sartre’s ground-breaking deployment of phenomenology as the guarantor of personal freedom in all its gory reality, remains compelling.
In Sartre’s analysis, as our conciousness looks at itself it become its own object, and at that instant we become a blank sheet of paper, rather like Patrick MacGoohan’s Prisoner tearing the mask off No1 to reveal the village’s overlord to be none other than Patrick MacGoohan himself – leading to the unavoidable question ‘Who am I then?’ and more to the point, ‘What do I do now?’
Dear Editor: I should like to congratulate Greg Artus for his article in the Existentialist theme of Issue 145. I thought it was expressed lucidly but concisely, and coherently argued, and, importantly, it gave pleasure – induced a feeling of happiness! I think he handles the arguments of Sartre, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty well, and I find his conclusion persuasive.
For a great number of us, Zoom and social media have been a boon and have enabled us to continue to do many things whose absence would have made lockdown unbearable. We were able to have meetings, consult our doctors, attend classes, participate in social events, and remain in daily visual contact with close friends and family. But, as Artus points out, despite this, it was an impoverished experience. I can recall when this first became clear to me in a conversation with my daughter, who lives about 400 miles from me. Although being able to see her face was reassuring, I realised that her eyes were not focussed on me, but on an image of me; the same image of me that I, too, was seeing. It was, indeed, ‘The Look of the Other’ that I realised I was missing; and also that I was simultaneously seeing myself as an Other.
While I find Sartre’s approach can be applied well to everyday life, he can be gloomy bugger, with a pretty jaundiced view of the human condition. I welcome Merleau-Ponty’s admission of happiness and humaneness to the argument. The only cavil I have with Artus’s piece is his concluding two sentences about social media. While it can be a fairly toxic place, there is much that is kind, humane and sociable. Having allowed happiness into the human condition, I feel Dr Artus could, without prejudice to his argument, have admitted it to social media too.
Alasdair Macdonald, Glasgow
Dear Editor: I was interested to read Peter Adamson’s article in Issue 145 on Iranian existentialism, with which I’m generally unfamiliar. My own view differs from that of one of those philosophers, Mulla Sadra. He thought that outside the mind there is only existence and no real ‘essences’. According to Sadra, things do not really have an essence – such as being a triangle rather than a square. He thought such categories only exist in the human mind, whereas reality cannot be divided up and is continually changing. His view seems to have been that what exists is fluid and indefinable. By contrast, I would argue that if nothing particular exists, then there is no existence. If some thing, or things, exist, then it must be some particular thing or things that exist. Even if these things continually change, it is still the case that at any one point in time, each thing that exists must be a particular thing and must have the particular bundle of properties it has. Therefore, unlike Sadra, I would argue that reality must consist of particular things with particular properties at particular times, and existence itself depends on the existence of these things .
Sadra also thought existence ‘manifests itself to different degrees’. I disagree. To say that there’s something that doesn’t ‘fully’ exist, is contradictory. There cannot, without inconsistency, actually be what doesn’t fully exist. So there can’t be different degrees of existence.
Peter Spurrier, Halstead, Essex
Dear Editor: Stuart Jeffries, in his review of Dennett & Caruso’s book on free will and moral responsibility (Philosophy Now 145), is concerned about the ‘devastating ramifications’ of determinism on the one hand or the ‘terrible possible corollaries of free will’ on the other. We should fear neither.
Since only conscious beings are ever held morally responsible, the fact of responsibility should be reserved for the conscious cause of an act. That is, I am responsible for an act if and only if I was conscious of choosing it, knowing that I could have acted otherwise. But the degree of my culpability for an act for which I have responsibility depends on other things: my competence to choose, and the many and various pressures that create obstacles to my forming a unified will. Again, these things relate to my conscious experience of choosing. But third-person judgement of culpability is much more difficult, to say the least.
The thing to notice is that an account differentiating responsibility and culpability along these lines needs make no assumptions about determinism, thus avoiding the Scylla and Charybdis that Jeffries highlights when responsibility is unjustifiably linked to the metaphysics of causation. The above account also, I suggest, provides a firm ethical foundation for the collective responsibility that Dennett calls the ‘Club of Moral Agents’.
Roger Haines, London
Dear Editor: It is the concept of determinism itself that has robbed the word ‘responsible’ of any meaning. But if no one is morally responsible, then it’s nonsense to speak of conduct (such as how the justice system is conducted) as being ‘fair’ or not, since ‘fairness’ is itself a concept rooted in morality. I doubt that anyone means to say that we should regard criminals as the only ones who have no moral responsibility, but it does seem a double standard is being applied.
This is not to say that the world isn’t deterministic. I’m just saying that if it is, it’s not coherent to moralize about retributive justice – not unless all you really mean to say is “I don’t like it.”
Bob Stringer, San Francisco
Modern Moral Positions
Dear Editor: When I invented the term ‘speciesism’ in 1970, the terms ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ had only just come into use, in the 1960s. We now use all three terms and this is, I feel, evidence that the English-speaking world takes prejudice in general far more seriously than it used to do. Victor Molinari expresses concern at speciesism (Letters, Issue 145, p.51) and asks how we define ‘animals’. Personally, I base the definition of ‘animal’ upon sentience – or, strictly speaking, painience – the capacity to feel pain or suffering of any sort. Guy Blythman (p.50) seems to base his morality upon a concern only for species that can ‘feel distress’. I agree.
We need to clarify and simplify our ethical terminology. The only wrong is causing pain or suffering of any sort to other individuals, regardless of their species (this is painism). This is why the denial of justice, equality, freedom, and happiness etc are all morally wrong – because they all cause pain. Causing X amount of pain to a dog or a robot is just as wrong as causing X amount of pain to a human. We need to put the moral implications of Darwin into practice!
The great moral divide in the Universe is now not between what is alive and not alive, but between what is sentient and what is not sentient.
Dr Richard D. Ryder, 2021 Winner of the Singer Prize
Dear Editor: As a student of Stoicism, I found Frank Thermitus’s essay on a Stoic approach to racism in Issue 144 innovative and refreshing. I was particularly pleased that Mr Thermitus avoided the common error of painting the Stoics as ‘fatalists’ who will put up with anything, even social evils such as racism. On the contrary, while the Stoics famously distinguished things in one’s control from things beyond it, they did not consider constructive social action to be, in any sense, beyond our control. I would also note that the Stoic worldview emphasized the brotherhood of mankind and the common bond of humanity. As I discuss in my book The Three-Petalled Rose, Stoicism takes the view that all human beings partake in the Divine Nature or Logos. The Stoic philosopher (and sometime slave) Epictetus also believed that we are all originally descended from God, and Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations that “all things are woven together and the common bond is sacred… [there is] one common Reason of all intelligent creatures” (Book VII, trans. A.S.L. Farquharson). In short, a modern-day Stoic would have good reason to join Mr Thermitus in, as he put it, “standing against racism with clarity and integrity.”
Ronald W. Pies, MD, Lexington, Massachusetts
Dear Editor: I was very interested to read the article about abortion and the possibility of artificial wombs in Issue 144. In point of fact, IVF (in vitro fertilisation) has already raised some of these issues, even if it currently remains impossible to fully gestate an embryo outside of the natural process. In the context of IVF, we have tens of millions of embryos currently under ‘deep-freeze’, stored indefinitely. Is this preferable to termination? Only a few months ago, we learned that a baby had been born after spending nearly thirty years in stasis. The responses from the ‘Pro-Life’ community were generally positive, but interestingly mixed. This is new territory for everyone, and it doesn’t seem at all obvious how we should proceed. For instance, how are the embryos to be used? Perhaps the first idea would be to stop amassing them in cold storage.
Could it be that we are creating serious issues for the future in this area? There might perhaps be longer term risks: Aldous Huxley wasn’t afraid to highlight some of them in Brave New World, written some ninety years ago. For instance, if we gestate human beings artificially, it might then seem irrelevant to have its natural parents raise that child. Would the state then take charge? And what about the potential for genetic modification, and all that brings with it? What might here seem a minor issue could become definitive for how we progress as a society.
Anthony MacIsaac, Institut Catholique de Paris
Dear Editor: Charlotte Curran’s piece, ‘The Ethics of Fat Shaming’ in Issue 144 brought the conditions of health and body image into philosophical relief, and to good effect. Fat shaming is a moral issue worthy of moral reform. Much unnecessary shame has been doled out and received through it. I have been on both ends. But shaming someone over their appearance – corpulence or otherwise – is a violation of love and a failure to treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated.
While Curran emphasizes the autonomy of individuals concerning their appearance, I would temper that with neighborly and communal concerns pertaining to health. If being overweight is a direct threat to my health, I should address that, not only for myself but for the sake of those whose lives are closely intertwined with my own. If I contract type-2 diabetes because of being overweight, that will adversely affect not only me, but also my wife, who would be burdened with my ill health. If (as I have found) I can lower my blood sugar by losing weight, I should do so. That is quite apart from what others might think of my appearance.
Douglas Groothuis, Denver Seminary
Dancing Around Lyotard
Dear Editor: In his piece on Jean-François Lyotard (‘Philosophical Haiku’, Issue 145), Lyotard is described by Terence Green as believing he was a ‘divine oracle’; that he peddled ‘meaningless hogwash’; and that postmodernists like him committed ‘licensed fraud’. In this, Green takes what now passes as the orthodox pose against the demon menace of postmodernism. This casts noble defenders of objective truth against corrupt ‘twentieth century European’ philosophers such as Lyotard, who had the temerity to upset comforting Anglo-American visions of a rational political and intellectual order, now in tatters.
This sort of binary thinking, in which one side can feel virtuous and superior through the odd personal attack, has obvious psychological benefits. It in part explains the use of ‘Continental’ philosophy as a useful scapegoat for the ills endemic to philosophy, and results in the sort of scornful and philosophically lazy characterisation Green treats us to. He says Lyotard is ‘incomprehensible’, and his prose ‘impenetrable’. He is described as never having learnt “the art of writing well or expressing himself clearly”. These subjective judgements are presented as if they are facts about Lyotard’s style, but the simple existence of scholars who have written about, and clearly do understand, what Lyotard says, instead proves the opposite.
Given his evident difficulty deciphering what Lyotard wrote, one must wonder how Green was able to muster anything to say about him in the first place, and should probably disincline us to trust in his opinion of it. I would question why someone who cannot comprehend Lyotard’s prose is writing about him, unless – as it turns out – the intention is to make Lyotard and postmodernism culpable for the present crisis of trust in truth and the authority through which it is established. Sure enough, Green serves up the unsubstantiated, ludicrously simplistic assertion that Lyotard “opened the door to every type of New Age swindler to assert the legitimacy of every claim, no matter how absurd” (because we all know how popular and widely-read Lyotard is, especially in the United States, that bastion of respect for French intellectualism, where one can hardly move for tripping over copies of The Postmodern Condition). In his eagerness to strawman Lyotard, Green apparently fails to realise that far from endorsing our truth-critical state of affairs, Lyotard was actually undertaking a critical diagnosis of the historical conditions in which knowledge is produced and their destabilising transformation through technology – hence his book’s subtitle: A Report on Knowledge.
As a historian, one would think Green would be more attuned to the fragmented social, political, and digital conditions in which knowledge is today generated and dispersed, since it is these shifting conditions, not any mass reading of Lyotard or any other postmodernist, that has undermined the formerly persuasive grand narratives of history and progress.
Alexandre Leskanich, London
Protesting About Protesting
Dear Editor: In his article in PN 144, Andrew Hyams suggests how societies should ‘recognise’ protest movements such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion. His cherry-picking of ‘agreeable’ examples, however, obscures some of the difficulty of his proposals. We might easily add to his list such equally vociferous protests as the invasion of the US Capitol building by Trump supporters; or the many marches against the imposition of lockdown restrictions, despite their proven success in restricting the spread of Covid. And merely giving ‘recognition’ to the varied viewpoints driving protests can never be an adequate response. Usually, the protestors themselves will have specific demands which governments must either yield to or refuse. Protestors about climate change, for example, do not want ‘recognition’: they want action to be taken by world leaders. Nothing less than this could bring them satisfaction. ‘Recognition’ can never provide a sufficient means for reaching a just response to such demands.
Hegel’s concept of mutual recognition, upon which Hyams hangs his argument, belongs, I believe, to the psychological, rather than the political level of Hegel’s system. He says that it is by means of recognition that our subjectivity is constituted – that is, by being recognised by others we become the people we are. But in relation to conflicts between different sectors of society, in his Philosophy of Right, Hegel asserted the necessity for a higher level authority to adjudicate between conflicting demands. He believed that a democratically elected government should hold this authority, and it is not to be usurped by any self-appointed group purporting to represent ‘people power’.
Peter Benson, London
Art & Morality Don’t Mix
Dear Editor: In Issue 143’s ‘Art & Morality’, Jessica Logue writes, “does it matter what the artist did or did not do? Their moral failings? Yes! These things do matter, morally speaking.” They may matter morally or ethically, but do they have any bearing whatever on whether the artistic creations are valuable, perhaps of a quality way above most of the rest, perhaps destined to be a part of the repertoire?
An old and slightly disquieting truth is that there is no very obvious correspondence between an artist’s work and their personal behaviour. The work may be sublime; the behaviour anything from silly to insane and criminal. Conversely, the behaviour may be blameless and the work uninteresting or downright bad. Artistic merit has nothing to do with any other kind of merit. In the language of theology, talent is a gratuitous grace, completely unconnected with virtue. With this in mind, it may well be less than ethical to ask others, or even yourself, to downgrade, ignore, or maybe actually ban works of art based on the life of the artist. Such a thing has been typical of fascist regimes.
Peter Webster, France
Dear Editor: In her article ‘Art and Morality’ in Issue 143, Jessica Logue criticises a number of ‘bad’ famous artists. Presumably this is because she feels the artists in question to be morally reprehensible. But who suffers by this boycott? Certainly not Allen or Cobain, or indeed any of the transgressors. All one does by this judgement against art is to deprive oneself of a pleasure one may have otherwise enjoyed. But excellent art in any form should be enjoyed, on the basis that the work of the artist enhances one’s life.
My general point is that judgement as a learning experience can be positive as applied to oneself, but it serves no useful purpose to judge and condemn others on moral grounds. If there is an all knowing, all wise, all caring God, let it be the judge.
Delma Brunello, Queensland
Dear Editor: Should artists be ethical? Is the art nullified because the artist was nasty? I was a diva lackey – theatre, ballet, opera, visual arts – a tiny brain cell working in the dark for about forty years – and the art nearly always made the bad behaviour forgivable. When it didn’t, it wasn’t good art. Ars longa, vita brevis.
Kate Stewart, Bellthorpe, Aus
Fun With Values
Dear Editor: ‘What is The Most Fundmental Value?’ (sic), Issue 145, p.27. Not love, compassion, respect for human rights, trust, active responsibility, or self-worth, but spell-checking.
Mike Bor, London